Tech Pulse Survey Gauges CEO Response to COVID-19

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As reported in the Boston Globe, MassTLC has been actively working throughout the COVID-19 situation to provide the timeliest information and insights to help our member CEOs make critical business decisions as they navigate the COVID-19 crisis. Through convening of tech CEOs, policy leader forums, member community programs, and research we are bringing relevant and actionable insights to our members.

MassTLC conducted a survey of over thirty technology presidents and CEOs between April 9th and 12th on key issues relating to the COVID-19 crisis, and will continue to survey on a monthly cadence to provide ongoing insights throughout the crisis. The companies in this initial survey represented a wide range of size, from fewer than 10 employees to over 1000, with about half above and half below 100 employees.

Of this sample, 94% have “100% of their staff working remotely” and 6%, presumably with some essential workers, have “90% of their staff working remotely.” No company reported less than 90% working remotely.

We looked at the impact that the current economic environment is having on tech businesses and found that 91% had seen decreased demand for their products and services, with 42% reporting a significant decrease. A minority of companies reported favorable impacts with 9% seeing an increase in demand for their products or services.

When we looked at the impact on hiring, we found that a third (33%) were still hiring, while close to half (49%) had frozen all hiring, and nearly a fifth (18%) had implemented or were exploring layoffs, furloughs, or pay reductions as they hunker down to preserve cash and weather the storm.

It is not yet known when the outbreak will subside, and policy makers seem poised to relax mitigation efforts on differing timetables. We wanted to understand when companies felt in-person work, meetings, and events would resume. We found over a third (37%) predicting June, about half (51%) predicting Q3, and 12% predicting Q4 or beyond.

In terms of economic recovery, an overwhelming 85% believe it will be U-shaped compared to 15% who believe it will be a V-shaped recovery.

When asked when measurable economic improvement will begin, tech CEOs were more cautious with only 3% expecting recovery in June, 39% reporting Q3, 21% reporting Q4, and over a third, 36%, reporting that they don’t expect the economy to recover until 2021.

We next wanted to see how the COVID-19 situation would change that balance of work in the office and from home. We found that 69% of tech CEOs anticipate working-from-home will become more common, 28% think it will return to the pre-COVID mix, perhaps reflecting those who already have a strong remote working policy, and 3% were unsure.

Again, likely reflecting the prevalence of remote work in tech, 79% found the transition to working remotely to be generally smooth, whereas 21% found it to be challenging.

We asked an opened-ended question about the corporate policies companies would need to put in place before employees would be allowed to return to work. A majority of responses centered around timing, with some CEOs anticipating a gradual return with greater flexibility to allow for a mixture of office and remote work dependent upon employee comfort-level. Several of these CEOs that are exploring more flexible return policies noted this to be a change as they had previously operated with most employees in the office on most business days.

Some CEOs – while noting potential privacy concerns – pointed to the need for wide-spread testing as a prerequisite to assess the potential impact before returning employees to work. One CEO wrote, “[t]he vast majority of my employees take public transportation to our downtown office… I’m concerned about the level of risk that we are asking them to take to commute given [that] so many carriers are asymptomatic. So, unless there is some sort of coordinated, state-wide way that people are deemed ‘safe’… I think we will hold back on requiring any physical presence until the 2nd wave is clearly behind us.”

CEOs with a global presence are following guidance from the CDC, WHO, as well as local public health officials, and adjusting policies accordingly, such as proof of testing for antibodies, use of masks, and when available, vaccination. A small group of CEOs are following the lead of other companies and will likely move back to an office workday within two weeks of others. Several CEOs noted that they were primarily remote based before COVID-19, so expect minimal impact. While other CEOs report that they will update corporate policies to make working from home an equal option to coming into the office, they also note the need to implement more rigorous performance management to ensure performance metrics are met.

Tech CEOs are seeking assurances from building management that screening and other measures will be in place. CEOs plan to be stricter on “stay home if not feeling well” policies, reducing density, shifting to “desk hoteling”, increasing barriers to approve travel, increase office cleaning, and providing hand sanitizer stations in common areas.

Within the office, CEOs are considering how to extend social distancing and reduce transmission with increased space between work desks, cleaning procedures, and better work from home (WFH) accountability. Expect CEOs to discourage handshakes and hugs in favor of fist bumps.

Finally, CEOs note that particular attention must be paid to providing flexibility in the form of part-time work for parents with kids at home, and more focus on supporting staff and mental health needs of employees as we return to work.

With the support of industry stalwarts, MassTLC will continue to bring the tech community together to share critical insights and timely information throughout the COVID-19 crisis. In times like these, we are especially thankful for the support of our Global Sponsors and all the companies that are stepping up to help support one another and our work to bring the community together.